Earlier this week this website suggested that, in the wake of Charlottesville and its aftermath, the Forward’s publication of Jewish Voice for Peace’s Naomi Dann’s piece equating Zionism with racism – albeit with a ringing denunciation two days later by Editor Jane Eisner — was revolutionary — a sign that the monolith of Jewish opinion on Israel was breaking up, finally permitting a true and open debate in the American Jewish tent about whether, in privileging Jews over Palestinians, Israel has become an ethnocracy inconsistent with human dignity and democratic and Jewish values.
This debate, as necessary as it is, has the capacity to tear apart the American Jewish community, as the debate over civil rights and the Vietnam War tore apart the American national fabric two generations ago. That is a divide from which the United States has yet to recover, so this discussion, and how we handle it, is critical. But there is no escaping it, because an increasing percentage of American Jews, and particularly the young, find intolerable what they perceive, in the wake of the fear and trauma engendered by the Holocaust, and of the success of the Zionist enterprise and the first modern Jewish state, to be Israel’s abuse of power – privileged Jewish power — over Palestinian Arabs who also have deep roots in the land on which the Jewish state sits.
Dann is one of those young people. Her argument is that the Zionist project and the Jewish state is built on white Jewish privilege, which deprives Palestinian residents of Israel, and occupied Palestinians in the West Bank, of their equal rights and human dignity. She is careful to say that American white nationalist leader Richard Spencer’s comparison of white supremacy to Israel is not literally true, because his racist views are abhorrent to the majority of Israeli and American Jews, and the world’s abandonment of Jews to the Nazis was an historic rationale for a Jewish state, which “distinguishes us fundamentally from white nationalists in the U.S.” who “are not facing any kind of discrimination whatsoever.”
But there is, she says, a “kernel of truth” to the observation that there is some resemblance between Spencer’s “white Zionism” and the Jewish Zionist project, not just from the right-wing violence against Palestinians and left-wing Jews, but because as that project has come to be practiced today, the Jewish state is premised on Jewish privilege, attempts to erase and displace Palestinians from Israel and the West Bank, an obsession with demographics and the maintenance of a Jewish majority, the seizure of privately owned Palestinian homes and lands, and the demolition of tens of thousands of Palestinian homes.
And, she suggests, white privilege often piggybacks on Jewish privilege, since not only do Palestinian citizens of Israel face systemic discrimination, but so do Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews of color, as well as African refugees seeking asylum. Dann ends her piece with a call for Jews to build coalitions with all those seeking equal rights and dignity to challenge “the institutions that uphold supremacy, together,” recognizing how Jewish freedom from anti-Semitism is bound up in the freedoms of those “who have fewer rights than us.”
Dann’s article was clearly a challenge for Eisner, who acknowledged that publishing it was an effort to reflect “a range of American Jewish opinion,” with lip service to the proposition that “[t]he free flow of ideas is to be cherished.” But rather than cherish the piece she chose to publish, she started out with the ad hominem attack that Dann was part of that “radical group Jewish Voice for Peace.” Eisner then went on to falsely accuse Dann of “comparing Israel to Nazis,” and of arguing “that Zionism is akin to Nazism,” which Dann was careful to avoid doing. For good measure, Eisner suggested that anti-Semitism was “at the core” of the argument that Zionism is inherently racist and exclusionary.
Ironically, however, Dann never argued that Zionism is inherently racist and exclusionary. Her argument is that Zionism, as it has evolved and is practiced in Israel today, is racist and exclusionary. For that proposition, there is no reasonable dispute. And Eisner herself does not dispute it. Indeed, she acknowledges that “[t]here is an undeniable tension between privileging Jews in the State of Israel and the rights of other religious and ethnic groups.” She admits that “the current government of Benjamin Netanyahu follow[s] policies that discriminate against non-Jews,” and “perpetuat[es] the occupation of Palestinian land and the denial of Palestinian sovereignty.” She describes as “painful” that “such policies are done in the name of Zionism,” and calls them “a perversion of the Zionist ideal” and “something that all Jews must reckon with.”
So here are Dann and Eisner, each reckoning in good faith with the perversion of Jewish and democratic values. Eisner is, in some respects, Dann’s comrade in arms. Dann’s piece, properly read and understood, is calling to Eisner to come work with her and “radical” JVP and others to accomplish that reckoning. Yet Eisner feels herself on the other side of the “Jewish Schism” when in fact they have much in common.
Both also acknowledge deficiencies in American nationalism, which Eisner ideally describes as color-blind, expanding to include all racial and ethnic groups who have come to our shores. Dann argues that Jews must work in coalition to challenge “both anti-Jewish oppression and systematic anti-Black racism,” and to challenge our “anxiety about demographics and racist and Islamophobic fear of ‘Arabs’” both in the U.S. and Israel.
Eisner, however, appears to agree with that proposition only in the U.S. but not in Israel, and that is the cognitive dissonance with democratic and Jewish values which mars her argument and causes her to lose Dann and more and more American Jews every day. Indeed, Eisner explicitly defends the enforcement of “social and cultural norms to maintain the hegemony of the dominant class” in Israel, by citing similar norms in Austria, Saudi Arabia and other nations which “have strict religious tests for citizenship and leadership to privilege one group over another,” asking, “Is that racist, too?”
Well, yes, it is. And therein lies the rub. Eisner defends Zionism as “an expansive aspiration” asserting that Jews, like all other peoples on earth, deserve the right to govern themselves in their ancestral homeland.” But Eisner ignores the fact that the Jewish “ancestral homeland” was not empty; it was also the “ancestral homeland” of a lot more Palestinians than Jews, and called Palestine. In that respect, Jews are not like all other peoples on earth, and their right to govern themselves cannot include the right to govern themselves at the expense of Palestinians and their equal human rights and dignity.
In order to defend this aspirational Zionism, Eisner argues that Israel, and the Jewish people, have a right “to maintain the hegemony of the dominant class” – privileging Jews over Palestinians, at the same time she decries the discrimination and occupation which inevitably has resulted from such hegemony. Notably, she fails to define the boundaries of such hegemony she finds in accord with Jewish moral and religious values. But this is where her Zionist ideal parts company with the American democratic ideal she earlier described, which specifically proscribes privileging one group over another. And it is this aspect of Eisner’s Zionist ideal that Dann, the rest of us, might well be justified in calling inherently exclusionary and racist.
In American constitutional law, a statute can be unconstitutional on its face (in every case), or unconstitutional as applied (in the particular case). But for the victim aggrieved by the application of an unconstitutional statute, it generally does not matter one whit whether the statute is unconstitutional on its face or as applied, if it violates her rights. Similarly, to the Palestinians ruled by Jewish hegemony, under occupation or facing discrimination inside the Green Line, it matters little whether Zionism is inherently racist and exclusionary, or racist and exclusionary as applied. We Jews need to eliminate Zionism’s racist and exclusionary elements. One would hope that Eisner, and all who aspire to expound Jewish values, in America and Israel, would agree.
Until they do, we have a lot of work to do. But it is a struggle for the heart and soul of the Jewish people, so it must be done, even in the face of painful tribal arrows of betrayal like “radical anti-Semitic and self-hating Jews.” Ultimately, whether we tear themselves apart will be up to those on the other side of the debate, because Naomi Dann and her ever-increasing band of brothers and sisters are not going away.